A toxic beauty

Home - Santa Fe Real Estate Guide - - SANTAFEINBLOOM - CAROLE A. LANGRALL

There’s a beau­ti­ful plant that shows up (some­times planned, some­times not) in many Santa Fe gar­dens, and it has a deadly rep­u­ta­tion. Ref­er­ences to this toxic beauty have been doc­u­mented from Homer’s Odyssey to Shake­speare’s Ham­let and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the story of An­thony and Cleopa­tra. Those who un­der­es­ti­mated its lethal, though al­lur­ing hal­lu­cino­genic pow­ers have learned the hard way: this is one plant best en­joyed from afar.

The se­duc­tive Datura wrightii is one of those in­ter­est­ing botan­i­cals with a lot of monikers, like Jim­son weed, sa­cred thorn ap­ple, an­gel trum­pet, sa­cred Datura, In­dian ap­ple, moon lily, moon flower, and toloache. That’s a lot of names for a plant that also made Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe a heap of­money; it was a fa­vorite sub­ject of the renowned painter.

Most com­monly re­ferred to as Jim­son weed, the plant has been as­so­ci­ated with bad trips and deadly con­se­quences for cen­turies due to its poi­sonous al­ka­loids that in­clude at­ropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolomine. These nar­cotic and hal­lu­cino­genic prop­er­ties have been used by many cul­tures in sa­cred ri­tu­als and wild-eyed ex­per­i­men­ta­tions, re­sult­ing in sev­eral pop­u­lar catch phrases such as, “Red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat, mad as a hat­ter.” This is prob­a­bly be­cause that’s howyou’re go­ing to feel if you try to in­gest any part of this plant.

Jim­son weed is na­tive to both In­dia and North Amer­ica and was im­ported to Europe, where it spread quickly. Of­ten con­sid­ered to be a weed, it is a peren­nial herb that grows up to five feet tall, with pale green stems and spread­ing branches and leaves that are ovate shaped. It is a self-pol­li­na­tor with showy blooms with white (some­times tinged pur­ple) and pointed corol­las up to four inches long. Their “evil” seeds are con­tained in hard, spiny cap­sules, about two inches in di­am­e­ter, which split into four parts when ripe. It blooms mid-sum­mer to early fall, but its fra­grant flow­ers don’t open up fully un­til the evening (like the other mem­bers of the Night­shade Fam­ily), shriv­el­ing back up by day­light.

Jim­son weed as a sa­cred herb is where it gets its rep as a dan­ger­ous “trip­ping” flower” rep­u­ta­tion. In an­cient herbal medicine, it was in­gested to treat mad­ness (although it of­ten caused more), epilepsy, and melan­choly. As an oint­ment, it was thought to help burns and rheuma­tism. It has also been used for weight loss. Shamans have used the roots to make tea made to pro­vide them clair­voy­ant abil­i­ties and spir­i­tual guid­ance. How­ever, Jim­son weed is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered too toxic and un­re­li­able for med­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions to­day. Ef­fects of the plant in­clude ex­haus­tion which de­vel­ops into hal­lu­ci­na­tions, lead­ing to deep sleep and even­tual loss of con­scious­ness. In large doses, death or per­ma­nent in­san­ity may oc­cur. Its rap sheet is well known, mak­ing its mag­i­cal heal­ing at­trac­tion a risk many choose to avoid if they are smart.

Luck­ily, all parts of this plant are un­pleas­ant to the taste, which makes it un­ap­peal­ing to chil­dren and an­i­mals. Although it grows wildly in pas­tures, cat­tle tend to avoid it un­less there is sparse food to graze on. In this case, they gen­er­ally die from poi­son­ing, but this is un­com­mon.

No mat­ter what Jim­son weed’s back­ground is, there is no dis­put­ing this plant is ab­so­lutely lovely. When it blooms in the evening, the flow­ers draw you in with their per­fect shape and dreamy scent. So, next time you spot Jim­son weed, get high off its beauty in­stead of its leaves and seeds. That’s one psy­che­delic, toxic trip you can af­ford to miss.

Carole has been in the flori­cul­ture in­dus­try, from in­ter­na­tional whole­sale and retail sales to event plan­ning, for over 20 years. She has flo­ral stu­dios in Santa Fe and Bal­ti­more, was a Santa Fe Mas­ter Gar­dener, and sup­ports lo­cal/na­tional flower farms and beau­ti­fi­ca­tion projects. She is avail­able for demon­stra­tions and lec­tures. Con­tact her at clan­grall@gmail.com or visit www. flow­er­spy.com.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

Datura flower

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